Abstinence Gets Fair Treatment from Today Show

If you felt the earth move about 8:16 a.m. on November 28 it might have been because a morning news show aired a reasonably balanced story about abstinence, including an in-studio interview with three young adults who have practiced abstinence since they were teens.

The story by NBC's Today show stands out because the mainstream media have treated abstinence and abstinence education shabbily this year.  (See CMI's report Sex, Lies and Bias for more on that.)

The coverage started with reporter Janet Shamlian's taped package talking about an abstinence education program in East Texas that is using a “virginity van,” billboard messages and a powerful TV commercial. The commercial features a teenaged mom who, at 14, broke the virginity pledge she signed as a 12-year-old.  While Today host Meredith Vieira set Shamlian's report up by saying that abstinence was a “controversial topic,” the story itself focused solely on the efforts of the abstinence education group to reach teens with the message of abstinence. 

In a stand-up Shamlian parroted the general criticism lobbed at abstinence programs by saying, “It's hard to pinpoint just how effective abstinence programs are.”  However she continued with a message not generally reported by the media, “But most studies agree on one point.  The programs tend to at least delay the age at which young people become sexually active.” 

Shamlian's report relied heavily on sound bites from teen mom Nicole Hood, the teen mom in the Texas program's abstinence commercial.  She is quoted saying that being a teen mom is one of the hardest things she's ever faced and she wishes teens weren't in such a rush to grow up.

Hood: “I can't just go to a football game anymore. I can't just go to the movies with my friends, because you have a child to take care of. And whatever you have to do for that baby comes first. So it's no longer me, me, me.”

Shamlian closed the story saying the debate continued over abstinence education, “its effectiveness and proper place on the landscape of adolescence.” Had the Today coverage of the topic ended with that it would have been nearly typical of the media's treatment of the subject, casting doubt on the topic and labeling it controversial.  However, after the taped segment ended Vieira was in-studio with three young adults who all practiced abstinence as teens and continued to do so in their 20s.  Vieira's treatment of the three was generally respectful though she did pose some skeptical and typical liberal questions. She asked each of them, two women and one man, why they chose to put off having sex until marriage.

JULIE LAIPPLY (age 30, now married): It's interesting, I remember in high school I was 4'7", 75 pounds, had a growth hormone problem and went through a really rough time. My dad said, “Julie, you have a choice to be the leader of your life. By making choices that's what's going to dictate how successful you are.”

VIEIRA: Why this choice?

LAIPPLY: Why this choice? Because it's not just about abstaining from sex. It's about making a declaration to make positive choices. Not only did I abstain from sex but I abstained from alcohol use and drug use and stayed focused on my goals. And I've got to tell you I saw very shortly how powerful making positive choices is and I was able to avoid a lot of the hardship I saw my friends go through related to dating and relationships.

VIEIRA: Now Shenette, what made you make this choice and what was the reaction of your friends?

SHENETTE HOWARD (age 25): Actually, I'm one that believes in learning from other people's mistakes. And because of some of the history in my family with women, they had premarital sex and had children outside of wedlock. I saw the hardship and pain associated with that. Because I didn't want to go through the same thing in my life, I decided that abstinence was the choice that I was going to make. Now, concerning my friends, I actually am one that has influence, so I was able to empower them and influence them to also make a stand for abstinence. So that's…

VIEIRA: Your mom was actually a teen when she had you. So talk about learning from the example.

HOWARD: Exactly. So, again, I saw the struggles, her working two jobs trying to make ends meet just for me. Again, I didn't want that for my future and definitely not for the future of my children.

VIEIRA: What about you Johan? A lot of people say, a guy, there's not a chance.

JOHAN KHALILIAN (age 28): … For me, when I was growing up, it was just really a time where I was just like living in a bad neighborhood. So I had this one family member. And we always had this saying, 'you always have one family member that just isn't right.' As I was walking out of my house one day, I was struck by my uncle who was drunk on the couch at 8:00 in the morning and I made this decision. I said, okay, am I going to be like him or am I going to be something different? Is there something more for me? I said, for him, being an alcoholic, being a drug abuser, being a gang member, being a guy going from woman to woman, I said I'm going to be the complete opposite.

VIEIRA: But having sex doesn't automatically mean you're going to fall into this trap and just become a bad seed, bad person.

HOWARD:  No, it doesn't. But if you choose to have premarital sex, if you choose to participate in these risky behaviors, know that what's associated with that are different risks. You can contract a sexually transmitted disease, a viral one in particular you can't get rid of. Having a child out of wedlock. On your own. Struggling. Is it really worth it? That's the question. Is it worth it?

Vieira, attempting to be “balanced” but also giving voice to what the media generally trumpet when it comes to abstinence-only education, confronted the group with a recent study put out by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy which found that abstinence-only education doesn't work. (For more on the media's treatment of this study, click here.) 

VIEIRA: But I want to talk to you about this study, from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and they looked at the abstinence-only programs. They determined there was no evidence that they worked to prevent or delay teen sex. Given that, wouldn't it be better to teach kids about safe sex as opposed to no sex?

LAIPPLY: Actually interesting. I talk with a lot of students about making decisions and I do a lot of work in reviewing different programs. And one of the things that's important to understand, that studies -- certain studies may show certain programs are ineffective. There are over 1,000 different abstinence education programs. One that I work with in particular, the Best Friends program, the girls in the program are 6 1/2 times less likely to engage in sexual activity, eight times less likely to engage in drug use. If that's not success, I don't know what it is. It's important to give teens the message we have a choice and we set high standards.

Vieira closed the segment by asking the three guests if they had any regrets about their decision to practice abstinence.  None did.  The guy in the group got the last word. Khalilian said, “... for me a lot of people look at it and say yeah, it's an unrealistic message and it is when you don't have a reason for it. If you're going to say no to sex just for the sake of saying no to sex it is unrealistic.  You have to have something that's compelling you in a different direction. Saying this is where my dream is, this is where my passion is, this is what I'm living for. And that is more compelling than saying I'm just saying no to sex.”

In total Today devoted almost nine minutes to the abstinence message and the vast majority of it was positive.   That's rare treatment from the mainstream media on a subject that really shouldn't be “controversial” at all.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.